Bernd and Hilla Becher

Posted on August 18, 2011


I have started to do some research into the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher and the so called Dusseldorf School of Photography. The Bechers ran the photography programme at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 1976 to 1996. The students of this programme have had remarkable success with many becoming world renowned artists. Amongst them are Andreas Gurski, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff and Candida Hofer. My reason for researching the Bechers and indeed certain of their students is that they worked in series – in the case of the Bechers they documented post industrial structures.

The Bechers systematically photographed industrial structures – water towers, blast furnaces, gas tanks, mine heads, grain elevators and the like. Their system is based on a rigorous set of procedural rules: a standardised format and ratio of figure to ground, a uniformly level, full-frontal view, near-identical flat lighting conditions or the approximation of such conditions in the photographic processing, a consistent lack of human presence, a consistent use of the restricted chromatic spectrum offered by black and white photography rather than the broad range given by colour, precise uniformity in print quality, sizing, framing and presentation, and a shared function for all the structures photographed for a given series. The photographs are displayed in installations comprising of anything up to twenty images. Examples of the Becher’s work can be seen on the Tate Modern website here.

My interest in their work stems from the fact that they are pre-eminent artists working with  photographs ‘in series’ and that they were also  ‘founders’ as it were of the Dusseldorf school which has had a major influence on the development of art photography in recent times.

The Becher approach is at first sight objective and dead-pan in nature and indeed when one looks at a single photograph of a type of structure it leaves one cold. However, when one looks at an installation of these photographs the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. The rhythms and repetitions have a strong aesthetic appeal and the nuances of difference engage the viewer. The Bechers work can be categorised as Typological and it seems likely that the work of August Sander was an influence on them. The choice of postindustrial structures as their motif is also likely to have been influenced by the work of Renger-Patzsch, Charles Sheeler, Margaret Bourke-White or Moholy-Nagy or others in the 1920s and 30s.

My research has revealed an interesting article by Blake Stimson published on the Tate  website (1) This is quite heavy going and I will need to re-read it and set it against other sources. It is very thought provoking. Stimson’s take is that there are “three separate attitudes that each can be said to be driving the Becher project: commitment or faithfulness to a project or position, first of all, delight or simple pleasure taken in the world, secondly, and then, third, enlightenment or the appeal to a universal human standard such as reason.”

My immediate thought on reading further into the work of Becher and the Dusseldort school is that my own work is very lightweight!! If I am to make an impact with my work then I need to take it much more seriously. My sense is that I am addressing a wide range of different work, without any real sense of focus or direction. If I am to be successful – and by this I mean if I am to be satisfied with my work- then I need to develop a much clearer focus on where my area of interest lies.

(1)  //